The Mystery of a Chinese Theme Park for Dwarfs

The Photo Blog
May 5 2014 11:02 AM

The Mystery of a Chinese Theme Park for Dwarfs


Sanne De Wilde

One day, while surfing the Web, Belgian photographer Sanne De Wilde stumbled upon a posed photograph of people in a dwarf theme park. Intrigued, she researched the image further and found out it was taken during a visit to the Dwarf Empire, or Kingdom of the Little People as it is also known, a theme park in the Yunnan province of China where dwarfs perform song and dance numbers, and other novelty acts, for tourists.

De Wilde felt compelled to visit. Through Belgian television contacts in Beijing, she connected with the park manager who invited her to come for a visit and gave her permission to take photographs. Upon arrival, she quickly realized the line between fiction and reality was blurred. Were the performers happy? Were tourists there for the entertainment or simply to gawk at the novelty of the performers? The owner of the Dwarf Empire, Chen Mingjing, contends that the park was built to provide employment for the roughly 80 dwarfs employed by the park; opponents argue they are being put on display as a freak show. “For me, it’s about how this kind of place can exist,” De Wilde said. “What does it tell you about a person who starts this and creates it? What are his intentions?”

Because she was traveling on a tourist visa, De Wilde was only able to spend a couple of weeks taking photographs. She documented what she saw both behind and in front of the curtains. “I didn’t want to totally interfere with the illusion they were creating,” De Wilde said. “I wanted to step into this fairy tale but show it from different perspectives so you do get a reflection of the place and not only the commercial idea they carried out.” She took photographs of the employees in their living quarters, where tourists weren’t allowed to visit, and also documented the dwarfs while they were entertaining and interacting with visitors. “With photography you can pretty much project your own emotion or identify on the photos you make,” De Wilde said.


Sanne De Wilde


Sanne De Wilde


Sanne De Wilde


Although making the images during the daily performances was straightforward, she said trying to convey the boredom that permeated throughout the park during the downtime was another matter. “A lot of time the people are just hanging around in their room or on their beds lying around,” she said.

De Wilde, who is tall and blond, found herself to be part of the attraction as well. Many tourists approached her because of her physical differences and asked to take pictures both of and with her, something that she found exhausting. “I became a character in the show they created there,” she said. “I would also hide with the little people to be free of the claws of the tourists … they want to touch you and have a part of you.”


Sanne De Wilde


Sanne De Wilde


Sanne De Wilde

Once she returned home, De Wilde said it took her about a year to sort through all of her images; she also received photos and letters from the performers who said they were thankful to be employed by the park. De Wilde said reading those letters also brought into question if they were genuine or if they wrote them while under pressure from the management.

De Wilde created a book (she’s currently looking for a publisher) titled The Dwarf Empire that includes an edit of everything she experienced both while there and from her communications before and after her visit. She doesn’t include captions with the images because she would rather have the viewer imagine his or her own stories associated with the park. Earlier this year she exhibited the work in Amsterdam and said people came away asking themselves some of the same questions that led her to the park. “The work tricks people into thinking about it and asking a lot of questions,” she said. “It continues to be mysterious.”


Sanne De Wilde


Sanne De Wilde


Sanne De Wilde



The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 30 2014 10:10 AM A Lovable Murderer and Heroic Villain: The Story of Australia's Most Iconic Outlaw
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal. But… What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.